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Oh, that hopeless warmth of the sad song. In week five of a 200-part series, the odyssey to chart the bottom continues, with No Doubt’s Don’t Speak.
Despite that fact that Gwen is now at the level of a one-name Madonna, Beyoncé, Miley pop star (although she stubbornly refused to surrender her surname for pop immortality) No Doubt were still an unlikely success story in ’95. Coming off the back of two coolly-received ska albums, the band’s prospects were so bleak that Gwen’s brother Eric left in 1994 to take an animation job on The Simpsons (although that is a pretty sweet career move).
The band’s third album Tragic Kingdom skates (then kick-flips) away from the cartoon ska on their first two albums towards a more polished pop sound: horn blasts were relegated, upstrokes were minimised, and although the sarcastic Bought and Sold Out in U.S.A. label on the cover art acts as a disclaimer (earnestness was sooo lame in the mid ’90s), No Doubt were predestined for the toppermost of the poppermost. It was very obvious that Gwen Stefani was a superstar.
Whether it’s the pigtails, the casual cool chick clothing, the skateboarder friends, the ska band rockin’ out in her garage, the fact both boys and girls felt un-threatened by and attracted to her, or a combo of all these elements, Gwen Stefani just seemed like she understood the crushing subtleties of high school heartache more than most artists in the mid ’90s. Don’t Speak was the purest distillation of this – a stirring ballad detailing the dying days of a relationship. “Don’t tell me, ‘cos it hurts” is a raw nerve of a line, but it’s also a denial of sorts, a block your ears lalala refusal to acknowledge the end. “You and me, I can see us dying, are we?” It’s so pathetic, and so relatable, with the meek “are we?” anchored to the end as a last-ditched effort to (kick)flip a fact into a question.
Also on The Big Smoke
- 200 Sad Songs: #197 Tom Waits – Martha (1973)
- 200 Sad Songs: #198 Cat Stevens – Father and Son (1970)
- 200 Sad Songs: #199 Joni Mitchell – The Last Time I Saw Richard (1971)
- 200 Sad Songs: #200 Liz Phair – Divorce Song (1993)
Of course, there was very real pain behind this song, too, and you can hear it in her vocal: No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal broke up with Gwen after a seven year relationship, then stayed in the band because long hours in cramped spaces with your newly-minted ex rules! It was – in hindsight – the savviest move he ever made, with the album selling over 16 million copies.
I think it’s safe to say it’s the world’s highest-selling ska(ish) album of all time.
The Big Smoke will be featuring the countdown each Saturday, but if you can’t wait for the scribbled, charted detritus, check out the entirety so far at 200sadsongs.wordpress.com